Collection No 5

Insights Sensing

Finding Meaning: Enriching Our Stories with Sensing

At its best, sensing not only provides greater context to our stories, but actively enhances our narratives.

The morning sunshine creeps through the closed bedroom blinds. You begin to wake up. You rise, dress, and head out for a jog. Upon returning you shower, feed the dog, eat breakfast, and then leave for work.

Another version of your morning goes like this: the morning sunshine creeps through the closed bedroom blinds. Once the morning sun hits 400 Lumens, the blinds automatically open to just 4 degrees. You begin to wake up. You stretch and rise.

You sync your Fitbit with your smartphone to save data about last night’s sleep. As you get dressed, you put on your Polar heart rate monitor and start the Strava app on your smartphone, then head out for a jog.

As you run through the quiet streets, the traffic lights go green, giving you right of way—each one perfectly, almost divinely, timed. Back at home, the automation system unlocks the front door as you turn the knob and begins warming your shower to 102 degrees—having intuited your preferred temperature from past, chilly mornings. As you shower, the automated feeder fills the dog’s bowl as she approaches it. You eat breakfast, record the calories, and leave for work.

The two stories are the same, except layers of sensors enrich the later version. But, do they do so in a meaningful way or is it just providing glut and excess? Besides adding detail that otherwise would be forgotten, overlooked, or wholly ignored, the addition of sensors alludes to promising enhancements to human behavior. Sensors can change how we interact with the world and augment that experience.

In time, the ripple effects of sensor-derived insights will remake our understanding not just of our individual lives, but also of our broader society, and in time, they will alter the direction of our civilization. As they collect, compile, and record data of our behaviors, sensors offer a means to preserve history and learn more about ourselves.

The data’s scale and value may vary over time, of course, but it becomes more meaningful in the aggregate. The specifics of a single morning’s jog may not reveal much today. When aggregated for a month or two though, they reveal your improving health. Synthesizing similar data from everyone within a 20-square-mile area could guide city planners to invest in more park infrastructure. Further out, 100 years from now, a historian might find this data helps explain how life was lived in the early 21st century.

To be sure, sensors do not create these narratives—the stories already exist. Rather, sensors add layers to help enhance understanding and reveal the stories’ obscured context. Yet sensors cannot do so on their own. In part, they need other sensors to provide a richer flow of perspective, and to help reveal more developed, compelling stories.

More critically, for these stories to resolve into meaning requires that we organize and frame the narrative. This may prove to be the most difficult challenge as we try to perceive the ultimate implications of sensing. To do so, many questions must be answered: what kinds of stories can be told through sensing? Are these stories important? And what do those stories mean?

Today, the meanings surfacing from sensing systems are often tantalizing, but still superficial. While some devices such as Nest’s smart thermostats are pushing sensing in promising ways, others like Nike’s FuelBand are just digital revisions of extant technology.

Nascent as today’s sensing technologies may be, they are beginning to provide context where none previously existed. The value of this context will inevitably grow, but only as well as sensors are able to merge with and augment our lives.

This puts an emphasis on both the design of the devices and how we interact with them. While still early in their evolution, the hardware and software technologies of sensing are already deep and complex. So too, must the interactive design of these devices become more sophisticated—more than that, it must become the driving force of the overall design process.

Computers offer a familiar example of this imperative. Today, they largely define our relationship to them, via screens, keyboards, and mice – peripherals we must use to interact with them. The computer requires us to transform our ways of working to fit its needs. Thus, the computer changes us, altering our physical and cognitive habits, creating a distance between device and user.

Sensors are changing this relationship. They are beginning to give computing devices the ability to work with us as we work; to understand how we communicate; to shift their nature to better fit ours. Objects and devices designed around natural user interfaces lead to more cohesive experiences – things just work together as if divinely destined to do so.

As computers and devices evolve to behave in ways more familiar to us, they become easier to use and understand, remaking the very concept of a computer. When screen, keyboard, and mouse are replaced by more intuitive modes of interaction, computers and devices stop being computers and devices. They simply become things—more useful, ubiquitous, yet less noticed, all at once. Their ontology changes. The astonishing result is we, again, become the hero of the story.

As this case suggests, the goal with sensing is to create natural interfaces, which change the perspective from virtual reality—a place disconnected from the real world—to an augmented reality. When this works, our world is enhanced. At its best, sensing not only provides greater context to the story, but actively enhances the narrative.

While this provides, at the very least, a perceived benefit, the designers of these sensing systems must proceed with caution. They must be mindful to only enhance and augment the narrative, and not write it. Sensing has qualities that provide insight to future events. The data describes less who we are and more who we may become. Where once initial data sets established by free will predicted the future, later generations of data sets are used to ensure we don’t deviate from an acceptable normal.

Inevitably, sensing technology will get smaller, faster, and more powerful. The infrastructure will be built to allow devices to communicate with one another over great distances. Their perception will become ever more acute. Of course, it will take time to design an interaction model such that this menagerie of devices react naturally to stimuli. This effort requires insights from fields of practice not traditionally associated with computing.

The final part of the sensing puzzle is how to best build software capable of processing the tide of sensor data. This involves complex algorithms able to detect patterns and perform some level of reasoning, enhanced by machine learning.

Sensing, as a complete concept, is about far more than adding sensors to the world. It becomes whole only when data is processed and useful meaning is extracted culminating in the creation of intelligence. Indeed, the emergence of meaning is arguably the most important—and most challenging—aspect of realizing the full potential of sensing. Otherwise, it will remain an exercise in novelty.

The technology of sensing has the power to influence a far greater breadth of our lives than practically any other past innovation. It is likely to remake our lives not just on a personal level but in time, our civilization. How this sensing transformation unfolds will be predicated not just on the questions we ask of the technology but also on the meaning we seek from it.

Jarrett Webb

Jarrett is a Principal Design Technologist at frog.

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